Instead, as the full title of the novel promises, the subject of Hardy’s focus and interest is Henchard’s character. The word “character” has several relevant meanings here. First, and perhaps most obvious, the word connotes the artistic portrayal of a person in a work of fiction. Second, it refers to a quality or feature that distinguishes one person or group from another. In his portrayals of Henchard, Farfrae (the Scotchman), Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane, Hardy relies heavily on traits that make his characters subject to larger social phenomena or forces. In these chapters, for example, he establishes the essential conflict between a world marked by tradition—as represented by Henchard, who has no means of salvaging a damaged harvest—and a world marked by progressive and sometimes miraculous modern methods. The third meaning of “character” is the suggestion of moral or ethical strength, as in the novel’s subtitle: A Story of a Man of Character. Although the narrative traces Henchard’s fall from grace and social respectability, it positions him, time and again, as a man of moral integrity through his limitless resolve.
The idea of integrity manifests itself several times during the short dinner at the King’s Arms. First, as Elizabeth-Jane notices, Henchard’s is the only wineglass among the celebrants’ to remain empty. This simple detail balances the image of Henchard, for although he is a man whose temper can lead him to make rash decisions that are as unwise as they are unkind, he is also a man of exceptional resolve and a man who honors the vows—no matter how extreme—that he makes. The incident involving the sale of “grown wheat” offers a look into another of Henchard’s interesting motives. A frustrated citizen’s questioning of Henchard as to how he plans to repay the villagers for the past points to Henchard’s biggest anxiety: how to make amends for past wrongs. Henchard’s actions indicate that he wonders if the mistakes of the past can be undone, and he hones his resolve for the possibility that he may be able to atone for it. But, stricken by guilt, first by his sale of his wife and daughter and, eighteen years later, by the suggestion of shady business dealings, Henchard longs to expunge the dark spots from his personal history.